The 2011 Michigan Football season is less than three weeks away, so it's time for our Maize n Preview series to start getting serious. As you probably know, we've already previewed the defense, so over the next three weeks we'll be looking at the offense, the coaches and taking a good look at Michigan's upcoming opponents. So far, the 2011 Maize n Preview series has a detailed preview of the Michigan Defensive Line, a detailed preview of Michigan's Linebackers, and a detailed preview of the Michigan Secondary.
Now it's time for the offense. We'll be looking at what happened, who's back, who's new, and what to expect from each of Michigan Football's offensive position groups going in to the 2011 Football Season. We're also breaking it down a little bit more and getting specific about each position. Why? Because there are only so many 4,500 word previews we can write without wanting to kill ourselves. This way it's not information overload on you and waaaay too much work for us. So, without further delay, let's preview the most important position on the field, Michigan's quarterbacks.
About Last Year
In terms of total yardage you'll be hard pressed to find a quarterback in the country, or in the history of college football, that did as much as Denard Robinson did for Michigan. The talented then sophomore lead the Big Ten in rushing with 1702 yards in 2010, eclipsing the Big Ten's record for rushing quarterbacks by almost 400 yards. On top of that he threw for 2570 yards and 18 touchdowns. Denard also became the first college quarterback to rush for more than 1500 yards and throw for more than 2500 yards in a single season. The result was a 62.5% completion percentage and an 18/11 TD to INT ratio. This unheard of production placed the first year starter 6th in the Heisman voting and helped lead Michigan back to a bowl game after a two year absence.
But it wasn't all roses. Robinson carried the ball more than any other player in the Big Ten (256) save Mikel Leshoure (281). Only Dan Heron at OSU came close to Robinson in terms of touches, and he got the ball FORTY fewer times. All those carries started to wear on Robinson. Fumbles. Interceptions. Bad decisions. Injuries. His production dropped like a stone in his last five games. Despite averaging above 8 yards a carry for the first 8 games of the season, Robinson's yards per rush dropped down to 4.5 yards per carry in his last five. On top of that, Robinson missed chunks of time due to hits and bumps and bruises in just about every game after Notre Dame.
On the back-up end, Michigan fans got the chance to see flashes from Tate Forcier and Devin Gardner at QB, but not many. There really wasn't much to talk about other than Forcier's OT win over Illinois (courtesy of Junior Hemingway snagging an awful touchdown out of a midair deflection). Gardner looked like a freshman who wasn't really ready for the speed of the college game. Forcier looked like Forcier, a riverboat gambling quarterback reminiscent of Brett Favre in so many ways except without the over-arching talent and arm strength.
When the dust settled in 2010, statistically, it was an amazing year. In reality though, it was definitely a year where Michigan was starting a true sophomore in Big Ten play and had two equally unprepared underclassmen backing him up. Fumbles, interceptions and mental mistakes added up as the season wore on. It was an amazing ride, but if we're taking a 10,000 foot view of the season it was good, but not great. Even so, 2010 laid the groundwork for what is expected to be one of the more prolific offenses in the Big Ten in 2011 and the experience Michigan's quarterbacks gained in 2010 will pay huge dividends in 2011.
Happy Trails Tate Forcier. Michigan's star crossed California bred quarterback was the break out star of the early 2009 season. But after the Notre Dame game where ABC's announcers slobbered all over themselves declaring "A STAR IS BORN!" things started to go downhill. Forcier started to look every bit the freshman he was and Rodriguez' QB-run-heavy offense got Tate's bell rung on more than one occasion. Then the 2010 off-season hit and it was apparent he wasn't putting in the time to be Michigan's quarterback and leader. So much so that senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk called him out on it at the 2010 Big Ten Media days.
It really didn't matter though, Denard Robinson seized the starting role and never gave it back. Forcier spent his time threatening to transfer, retracting his statements, getting in trouble, not going to class and getting himself sent home from the Gator Bowl. Finally, after transferring to
Miami Hawaii Purdue San Jose State, Forcier appears to have found a home. Good luck Tate. We'll always have Notre Dame.
Denard Robinson. You may have heard of him.
The rising Junior was last year's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Football Writers Association of America All-American at running back, winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player, Michigan's Bo Schembechler Award for the team's Most Valuable Player, All-Big Ten first team (media) and All-Big Ten honorable mention (coaches). Not bad for a first year starter.
As good as Denard was last year, the expectation is that he'll be even better this year than last. We can go into superlatives, but I think his accomplishments last year speak for themselves. The issue is how does he improve on a great year? Lots of ways. While Robinson was electric on the ground last year and collected some healthy numbers in the passing game, Michigan's passing game was wonky at best. Robinson has a very powerful arm, but lacked touch and arc on the ball during the 2010 season. Robinson's deep balls were not a pretty thing to watch. They were either a long arcing interception no where near his receiver or a frozen rope that was as likely to rip the receiver's (or defender's) hands from their wrists. In Rodriguez' system this wasn't such a big deal because of the system's reliance on quick reads and short throws in the flat.
This year, Robinson's reportedly put in the time over the summer to improve his throwing mechanics, his footwork, and his understanding of defensive alignments. Michigan's new pro/spread hybrid system will allow Robinson to use his legs with regularity, but it will also focus on keeping the talented QB upright by limiting his carries and not exposing him to the pounding he took in 2010. That means the work Robinson put in over the summer on his throwing mechanics will immediately be put to good use. He's got all the talent in the world, and this season Al Borges hope to showcase it all season long.
Devin Gardner. Gardner played in four games in the 2010, primarily because Tate Forcier got himself in trouble and forced Rodriguez to (most likely) burn Gardner's redshirt. If we're being honest, I think Gardner is a more natural fit for Borges offense, but he's simply not as far along in his development as Denard is. The physical specimen I'd compare Gardner to is (sadly) Terrelle Pryor. Gardner has long, lanky limbs and a physical presence that is hard to describe. But while he's a gazelle on foot, he has a bit of a wonky throwing motion. Watching video over the last few days since the start of camp you can see improvement in Gardner's deep ball, but he still seems to shot-put short throws. As a runner though, man. He seems to glide when he runs the same way Pryor did, but I don't think he's as fast at this point.
Gardner will be Michigan's primary back-up in 2011. And by primary I mean only. I don't see any of the other quarterbacks being able to step up and help here. Gardner is a supreme talent, but he's not on the same level as Denard. I think another year holding a clipboard (if possible) will do wonders for the talented freshman/sophomore. He's a great fit for the new system, but he's going to need a lot of work before we see him terrorizing opposing defenses.
Joining Gardner are juniors Jack Kennedy and Steve Wilson. You've heard a little about Jack Kennedy, who many are hoping can replace the rapping David Cone as Michigan's favorite non-playing back up. Wilson's a bit more of a question mark. I know next to nothing about him other than he's a walk on.
Michigan picked up one commitment at QB in 2011, and that was Russell Bellomy out of Arlington, TX. Bellomy was a consensus three star recruit who participated in the Elite 11 quarterback camps with decent, but not stellar results. Touch the Banner compares Bellomy to former Al Broges quarterback Cade McNown, but hopefully without the parking tickets. Hopefully Bellomy is able to redshirt, but I don't see him supplanting either Robinson or Gardner. He may be able to play a season at QB while redshirts, but who knows.
The 2011 Season
Personally, I've got high hopes for Michigan quarterback position in 2011. When I sat down with Denard at Big Ten Media Days he told me how much he and Devin had been working together during the summer. Specifically, Denard told me that Devin had helped him considerably with his footwork. Denard indicated that Devin had helped him to slow down in his drops and pay attention to his feet as he prepared to throw, and that the results had been great. Though the two talented QB's aren't roommates again this season, they remain good friends and seem to generally help one another get better. And that's good news for Michigan.
Heading into the season with a new offense to digest there are a lot of things that can go wrong and a number of excuses that can be made. Talking with Denard I got the feeling that he and Devin simply won't accept that. They seem to have thrown themselves into the playbook and have actively led the offense during their summer training and practice. More importantly, you got the feeling in talking with one of the primary targets (Kevin Koger) just how much work they'd been putting in and how much both had improved.
The biggest change will be the pounding that Denard takes. I was shocked when I saw the number of carries he had in 2010. When your quarterback is second in the league in carries you're going to have problems. He simply isn't built to take that kind of pounding. I suspect you'll see Denard's carries cut in half in 2011 (or at a minimum, drop by 100) and his passing attempts to go on a 50 attempt uptick to the mid 300's on the season. With the coaching staff's insistence on a primary tailback, you'll see those missing carries go to Michigan's feature back. Critically, it'll cut down on Denard's fumbling issues. Last season Denard coughed the ball up quite a bit due to getting pounded. This season, with his exposure down, I think his ball security will be much better.
I think the end result of this transition is going to be a great thing for Denard and a great thing for the Michigan offense. I suspect Denard will end up around 2900 passing yards, 1,100 rushing yards, 22 passing Touchdowns, 10 rushing touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
The projected numbers are really just a minor increase over last season and his projected INTs should probably stay constant simply because he will make some mistakes in the new system. I think the big difference this season will be how he gets his yards. With the improved defense and consistency on offense, Denard's numbers should be more of a constant through out the games rather than in futile attempts at comebacks. He should be much more consistent, and that should make this team much, much harder to play against.